America’s Portland Problem

Having lived in Portland for two and a half years, I am becoming more familiar with this quirky city, increasingly popular with millennials. Once a gritty solid working class community, Portland has become a favorite destination for foodies, craft beer and spirits fans, coffee drinkers, and save-the-planet types who brew their own kombucha, pickle their own vegetables, and recycle everything that doesn’t emit fatal levels of radioactivity. It’s a town of makers and make do-ers, tony little shops filled with artsy ephemera, entitled (and occasionally nude) bicyclists, sixties reboots who embrace culture sans couture. People tend to feel good about themselves simply because they have chosen to live here, choice of residence (it seems) being an indicator of a certain set of values; one which embraces Powell’s but disdains Amazon, whose residents proudly sport short pants in winter and consider Sasquatch an inside joke. It’s Portlandia as reality show, Twin Peaks without Bob. Much of the above is a twenty first century layer imposed over the old Portland: the flannel shirt, double aught, fiercely independent, most-unchurched-state in the union and damn proud of it Portland. The used-to-be-the-most-racist state that’s trying awfully hard to be the reformed you-be-you-and-I’ll-be-me Portland. It’s LGBTQ heaven, a legally THC infused, house-flipping spot of manic interest in all things chilled out where property values and homeless camps increase daily. It’s roses and robberies, diversity amidst drizzle. I like it. The above description isn’t the problem, however. The problem is that Portland is located in the most temperate spot in the Pacific Northwest. Generally warmer than Seattle but with as much precipitation, closer to the ocean than the drier Oregon high country, nestled between two rivers that provide enough humidity to grow mold on laundry newly removed from the dryer, Portland is a place of explosive vegetation. One can plant anything in any patch of dirt and it will grow, assuming it isn’t choked by weeds before it reaches maturity. A passionate gardener, I arrived in Portland excited at the prospect of growing things that I was unable to foster in our last home, the high mesa of northern New Mexico. Soon after arrival, I measured our yard for garden plots, calculating the sunny spots in a plot of land overcrowded with trees. A previous owner had been tree-crazy and planted a variety of fruit bearing trees, never thinking how they might look 20 years on. A quick census revealed that we had figs, Italian plums, persimmons, Asian pears, apples (three varieties), quince, Chinese chestnuts, Bartlett pears (three trees worth), a “dwarf” sweet cherry that had exploded skyward to a height of 40 feet, blueberries, raspberries, Corinthian cherries, a thirty foot arbor bearing Concord grapes and a variety of non-fruit bearing trees. Every space non-tree was filled with iris, allium, daylily, peony, half a dozen roses gone wild, Spanish lavender, fern, hens and chicks, rhododendron, four varieties of bamboo, mint. And blackberries. Everyone in this part of the country suffers from rampant blackberry growth, the scourge of the Pacific Northwest, thanks to the rapid alimentary process of berry-loving birds. Remarkably, I didn’t see the problem, only the possibilities. There wasn’t much sun to be had in my yard, but I managed to construct a few raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. I planted my first starts come spring and awaited the bounty. It arrived the day after planting. My newly planted beds, pristine just the day before, had exploded with tiny little weeds overnight – dozens of them. I went to pull them out but upon being touched, they launched multitude of tiny seeds across the surface of my vegetable beds. Ever since, I have been involved in the daily task of attempting to tame the wilderness. The bamboo alone requires a full time nanny as it multiplies faster than rabbits and left untended will grow to heights of thirty feet or more. The vegetation in my yard grows faster than I am able to contain it: a seed arrives and it’s growth cannot then be stopped. In relational terms we refer to such activity as promiscuity. In biological terms, we call it malignancy. So many of the things we fear the most are marked by unregulated growth – cancer, nuclear proliferation, environmental toxins, mob behavior. And of late, I fear, the atmosphere in this America of ours has provided the perfect growing conditions for division, discord, blaming, antipathy. Like bacteria thriving in the perfect medium of a petrie dish, anger and antipathy roils, the preference for advantage over altruism is celebrated, the insistence on the self dominates like a carpet of weed that steals light and moisture from the...

Shaping the Field

How does it work, exactly? A friend sent an email this morning asking me to “say a prayer” for her father who was in surgery for the reemergence of a brain tumor. The procedure is, not surprisingly, complex and dangerous. I immediately offered prayer for the intention of his return to health and the skill of his surgical team. Perhaps like many who pray, I then entertained the question of whether my prayer (or any prayer) was efficacious, whether it was just an exercise in feeling good about myself, an antidote to feelings of powerlessness, an application of wishful thinking. I suppose each of those may be a by product of my praying, but I must believe they are not its sole consequence. It’s not a matter of believing. Certainly, belief has power: it has the capacity to transform men into monsters, sinners into saints. Believing in itself is nothing more than entertaining a series of delusions about the universe in which we live and our place in it. I have always been struck by Sir John Betjeman’s powerful confession in his poem Before the Anaesthetic, where he confronts the real possibility of his own demise and acknowledges the fantasy of his believing: St. Giles’s bells are asking now “And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?” St. Giles’s bells, they richly ring “And was that Lord our Christ the King?” St. Giles’s bells they hear me call I never knew the Lord at all. Oh not in me your Saviour dwells You ancient, rich St. Giles’s bells. Illuminated missals-spires- Wide screens and decorated quires- All these I loved, and on my knees I thanked myself for knowing these And watched the morning sunlight pass Through richly stained Victorian glass And in the colour-shafted air I, kneeling, thought the Lord was there. Now, lying in the gathering mist I know that Lord did not exist; Now, lest this “I” should cease to be, Come, real Lord, come quick to me. No, our believing is a pitiful thing, tragically limited by the narrow boundaries of our perceptions and intellects, as different from that of our fellows as are our facial features and body types. Admittedly, our believing provides us with a way to stand in the world and interact, but does little to shape the fabric of reality about us. But our praying may be a different matter. I have never embraced the “vending machine” approach to prayer – insert a prayer, pull the lever and get a product which may or may not bear some resemblance to your desired outcome. Nor can I accept (intellectually or spiritually) the idea that an anthropomorphic parental deity weighs the merits of individual requests and acts (although I loved Bruce Jay Friedman’s play Steambath where God was a Puerto Rican steam bath attendant named Morte who dictated commands to a celestial machine that responded to his caprice). I am convinced, however, that prayer is energy, intended and directed. That we humans are generators of energy is a given (that was, after all, one of the assertions of The Matrix), and we apply the energy we produce both for actions great and small, interactions selfish and benevolently interactive. Further, the saints of contemporary physics assure us that we live and move and have our being in and through fields of energy which connect and infuse all things animate and inanimate. Waves of energy influence the fields in which we dwell, and I pray with intention in hope that what humble energy I emit may have some effect on the field even far distant. And where is God in my assessment of the value of praying? As delusional as my own believing may be, I act in confidence that God defines and sustains the field of energy which allows little folk like me to shape emerging reality. It may be little more than a pleasant delusion, but I, like many others, have often had the experience of thinking of someone then having the phone ring only to find them on the other end. I have seen in my garden the consequence of planting things that do not get along in close proximity to each other, only to have both die. Certainly, their roots do not touch, but they do alter the nature of the field in which they are both planted. I have an admittedly humble model for global influence (one unavailable to me even 25 years ago) every time I surf the web and send a thought or a wish to those worlds away from me. So, too, I hope to influence the character of the cosmic field in...

Failure

The idea seemed relatively easy to execute: an acrylic rod with shallow openings drilled in each end to fix the piece in a silicone mold, hand laid Japanese paper glued on the circumference of the rod, cast the piece in polyester resin. When the resin hardens, de-mold the piece, turn it down, polish and drill to receive the barrel of the pen with section and nib. Fountain pen Japonisme. I decided the barrel would be black anodized 6061 aluminum, the section a piece of gold swirled resin that would highlight the gold highlights in the predominantly red pattern of the paper. The red and gold combination might lean a bit toward chinoiserie, but the pattern on the paper itself would be characteristic of the simplicity of Japanese design. I became quite excited at the prospect. As a pen maker (I like the term penwright, but it’s a non-word and is unlikely to be accepted into the OED any time soon), I have a few ground rules. First, I only make fountain pens. Ballpoints and rollerballs are ubiquitous, and I’m not interested in spending hours on something so common. Second, each of my pens must be the only one – I do not repeat designs or combinations of materials so that the user has the pleasure of knowing that their pen is as unique as their thoughts. I have friends who make pens, and they (smarter than I) design and execute a particular model of pen – a certain size and shape that they make over and over, at times changing the material to add some diversity. The approach has much to commend it: the maker can standardize certain operations insuring consistency, but more importantly the buyer has the experience of wanting something that others have (and find satisfactory). Brand consciousness has worked wonders for buyers of the Toyota Camry and Tommy Hilfiger clothing and it has been a successful strategy in the very small world of fountain pen purchasing. People want a Sailor or a Mont Blanc, a Waterman or Montegrappa because they are readily recognizable, symbolic of a certain kind of visual style, and have become associated with fine writing instruments. My friends who make fountain pens as a serious hobby (read: addiction) or small business have embraced the method of the big companies because it works and folks who are passionate about collecting pens know the makers by their models and do their spending accordingly. My next pen will be a Gorgonzola Trident, or some such model name. But producing the same pen over and over holds no appeal for me. Beyond bromidic, the process would become uninteresting after the second was finished, tedious after the third, and loathsome by the fourth. So each pen is different. It keeps me imagining. Fountain pen Japonisme contained the perfect combination of novelty, technical challenge and specialized appeal. And failure. The first fail was the construction of a silicone mold. Neglecting to anchor the positives in the mold appropriately left my $40 investment in two part silicone moulding material looking like a collection of flotsam on a quiet cove of the Jersey shore. The second $40 mold worked better, but the nipples designed to fit in the ends of the acrylic rod tore slightly when demolding the positives, meaning that I could get a few pieces out of it, but another $40 would be needed to make one that could be used repeatedly. Still, my excitement held as I did a lot of learning for less than $100. I’ve spent thousands on post graduate degrees and learned less. One by one, I glued expensive pieces of paper to acrylic rods that I had turned down to size, cast them in polyester resin (which, due to its atrocious odor, had to cure in the garage if I wanted to remain married). Give it plenty of curing time and be patient turning down this irregular shape into a cylinder. So far, I’ve ruined eight. I’ve tried different adhesives, different treatments of the paper surface, different ratios of catalyst to resin, multiple approaches to curing the cast. They’ve all failed. Most of my inspiration for persistence in design and execution of everything from pen making to gardening to food preparation comes from a visit my wife and I made to Florence a number of years ago. Of all the glories in that glorious city, I was most deeply moved by our visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze where Michelangelo’s statue of the David is on display. Arguably the most famous piece of statuary in the world, the David seen by itself is a wonder, especially considering Michelangelo’s...

Evo, Devo, Revo

The efficacy of evolutionary processes depends entirely upon the perspective and values of the observer, mirroring in biology what Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle posited in physics. Case in point: my children, in their third and fourth decades have, in my belief, already surpassed me (in my seventh decade) in the qualities and characteristics I deem desirable to a rich and fulfilled expression of authentic humanity. I do not doubt but that nature and nurture both come into play as they had the benefit of their mother’s genetic disposition toward acceptance and patience (supplementing my characteristics favoring assessment and urgency), and the experience of Rectory living which has as a constant interface continual encounter with all sorts and conditions of folk. My wife and my shared commitments to fundamental tenets of faithful living (love God, love people being chief among them) were always held as a high aspiration in our home, if not a completely ubiquitous practice, creating an atmosphere that shaped their early lives. The acquisition of things never played much of a part in our home as there was little resource with which to acquire and when there was some acquiring of items considered necessaries by friends or parishioners, it invariably was attended by a sense of having been extravagant, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. It came as no surprise to me that each of our three daughters have pursued careers short on compensation but long on service to others. They each reached their decisions at different times and through differing processes of discernment, but have all embraced professions that define them and which they, with remarkable proficiency and dedication, will help to further. However, their vocational choices, while being consistent with the worldview of the nuclear family from which they emerged, is only a small part of their evolution beyond their parent. As persons, they are within themselves so many of the things I always longed to be but so frequently have proven myself not to be. While I could be understandably parental and match characteristics with them individually, I will content myself in saying that they possess a passion for and willingness to act for justice that I often admired and so frequently let pass. They display a generosity of hand and heart that convicts my possessiveness as evidence of underdevelopment. Their glad and nonjudgmental acceptance of those who differ so radically from them displays obvious growth over my inclination to associate with beings like self. In these, and in so many other ways, it is apparent to me that they have successfully moved through my Beta phase to a fully functioning version 2.0. But I have to admit not only my bias, but also the fact that I see these things from a particular perspective: one that places the highest value on those characteristics. In truth, I find myself in a world that values these things less and would point to my children as examples not of progress, but of devolution. They are, after all, not dedicated consumers. They are not committed to amassing wealth. They are not so much interested in who loves them (evidently America’s new immigration test), but rather who they love. They value the honest expression of their perceptions and commitments over pronouncements crafted to incite or appease. They spend their non-employment discretionary time giving rather than getting. They don’t dress like anyone in the advertising pages of magazines and tend to accessorize from places like Goodwill. The only things they consider precious are their family members, friends and animals. And that’s not success in America anymore. Ultimately, time determines that which improves and that which devolves, what survives and what faces extinction, but I fear that without another –lution we may see the end of the qualities and characteristics I see in my daughters and those like them as the nation and the world hurtle toward self-serving isolationism. In the time I have left, I commit to working toward those things for which my daughters stand in hopes that I may still may grow. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new...

The Road Ahead

My first lessons about living under occupation came from Victor Lazlo. Victor Lazlo, Jean Matrac, Kurt Muller and Albert Lory (who was secretly in love with Maureen O’Hara, but then weren’t we all?). These were characters in the films that portrayed resistance to fascism with the cloying glow of cinematic courage and unquestioning resolve. Each 90+ minute drama, filmed appropriately in black and white, was unencumbered by the exploration of ethical shades of grey, and players had the luxury of moral certitude. “You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing we will die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” the man said. Collaborators, both petty and grand, were totally depraved, and even those whose actions were driven by need for survival were never excused or forgiven. Choose death or be deservingly consigned to the carnaval laid. My adolescent admiration of cinematic resistance to tyranny inevitably proved insufficient to address real world actions undertaken by nations (especially my own) and groups within nations that resulted in savage injustice. Upon reflection, there seems an almost unbroken line of such aggressions. Armed with passionate commitment born of black and white thinking, I marched and chanted, angry and insistent. The songs of protest, sung so often, still have a right to residence in my thinking. Deep in my heart, I do believe… Hey, Hey LBJ… The whole world is watching This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio… Stop children, what’s that sound? Everybody look… Eventually, I learned that tyrants can’t last forever and that the work left to ordinary folk, like towns hit by tornados, is primarily clean up and start again. And yes, there are always those destroyed in the meantime: the martyrs for justice and righteousness who died or whose families or relationships or finances or good names were forever broken as the juggernaut of uncritical certitude plowed forward. But I also learned that tyrants and demagogues arise only because there is something dark and inexplicably urgent in the human heart that makes room for their emergence, hopeful that they will eliminate those we fear or restore that which is familiar by means that we would rather overlook. But demagogues only emerge when the times provide an opening (it is said that after Jesus successfully navigated the temptation in the wilderness, the Devil left him for a more opportune time). In the same way that the body human succumbs to dysfunction when its fundamental needs are neglected in favor of sloth and malnourishment, the body politic has become flabby and uncritical, susceptible to partisanship and adversarial interchange. Only in a culture of corporate avarice whose primary purpose is to seduce with the newest, shiniest, sparkliest (all of which could be yours!) could a morally compromised huckster with a taste for glitz and kitsch gain an audience. To be honest, part of my emotional response is to revert to those first learnings about living in times of occupation – to take an extreme stance and insist on the dismemberment of the occupying force at all costs. But our times are not simple, and our government, while not the choice of the people, nonetheless reflects the beliefs and aspirations of a segment of our society. Surprisingly, those whose trucks and homes and lives are covered in rust, whose jobs have disappeared, whose dreams have dissipated in the volatility of global economics, who feel displaced in a world that is changing faster than their ability to adapt nonetheless look to the very sector that denuded them for their salvation. They may feel represented. I do not. Further, I feel that it is my obligation as a citizen to resist the nature and character of executive actions that have been taken in the fledgling days of this administration. It is apparent that I am not alone. But I have learned that the simplistic cinematic depiction of resistance I thrilled to as an adolescent is no resistance at all, only a post hoc imagining of what we would like to have been as a people. If, ten years hence, we hope to be proud of our response to current times, we must embark on a particularly steep learning curve, one that will be costly and unquestionably difficult. It may, for some, involve more marching with new chants and insistent songs. For others, it will necessitate engaging every peaceable measure available to raise opposing voices and proclaim, like the residents of Whoville “We are here!” Yet others will join hands in solidarity with those targeted for blame and elimination. For the responsible and discerning citizen it will entail a daily and active response to the...

Christmas and the Lovely Lies

Like the man Ebenezer became, I’m a Christmas kind of guy. I confess that I like it all – the gaudy, the kitsch-y, the solemn, the noisy, the excessive, the sacred, the truth as well as the lovely lies. The problem, of course, is that some of those lovely lies, which used to work for us, now work against us. When truth is too great to grasp, too astounding to convey in language, we revert to story – story that says in symbol what we cannot describe adequately in words. So much of the Christmas I love is just that – story that reduces to the embraceable that which cannot be conceived in mind or expressed by tongue: realities too great for simple statement of fact. The stories work in a way that factuality cannot by drawing out the deepest and most compassionate aspects of the human heart. The story evokes that which is most divine in our humanity where facts leave us uncomprehending, incredulous. The prospect of a young innocent in trouble, the miracle of birth in the humblest of settings, the astonished enjoyment by both the small and the great to the most ordinary of events, the savage pursuit by a murderous oligarch of an infant perceived as a threat to power, a couple in love on the run and through it all the certainty that something celestial, something other was impassioned, engaged, invested. The story matters to us because we are in ourselves an image of that celestial other, to whom it also mattered. But the truth of the story is so great, so unimaginable that to reduce it to the realm of thought threatens to remove it from the realm of wonder. One of the remarkable things about our “two nature” character is that things we cannot grasp in the mind may nonetheless be embraced by the heart. Thus it is, at least to me, with Christmas. There is a danger, however, in those stories. Narrative has power to transform only if one realizes that there is a larger truth behind it. This, too, is Christmas. By allowing the stories of Christmas to stand alone without their underlying power of unfathomable reality, nodal events in our spiritual heritage are consigned to the realm of infantilism. Rather than the embraceable mystery of the “dwelling with” of the divine and the human, Christmas is just kids’ stuff, a pleasantry to enrobe children’s annual experience of unboundaried acquisition. But Christmas has always been and must remain a uniquely adult wonder, although the enormity of its mystery has been obscured by the unquestioned embrace of its story, leaving behind the incredible reality behind the narrative. Of all the implausibilities in the Christmas canon (angelic interventions, politically driven infanticide, stellar message events and traveling Zoroastrians), perhaps the most incredible is also the most cherished – the image of a virgin, meek and mild, bearing a child accompanied by her confused and silent but unquestioningly supportive husband. A wondrous image, to be sure, and one certain to assure the reader of the remarkable nature of the child. However, it is an element which detracts from rather than enhances a mature consideration of the enfleshment of the divine. Biblical scholars have long been aware that the assertion Mary’s virginity was little more than a midpoint in the evolution of Christianity’s understanding the God-ness of Jesus. Imagine taking a point in American history, say the Civil War, and insisting that the beliefs which prompted it remain true of all Americans to this day. Certainly, there was a time when the church asserted Mary’s virginity as an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. But the truth about Jesus’ parentage was even more astonishing than a simple violation of the biological order. Following Jesus’s death and his followers’ experience of his continued presence, the Church tried to understand what his presence and ministry meant and how it came to be. In the first 100 years of their common life, they expressed it in a variety of ways until they came to an understanding that seemed to satisfy. The earliest preaching about the Christ-ness of Jesus asserted that God had designated Jesus as the Messiah at the experience we refer to as the resurrection. “God has made him both Lord and Christ,” Peter proclaims in Acts 2. Later, Paul seems to concur by stating that the resurrection was God’s “Yes!” to Jesus’ life and ministry (2 Corinthians 1:20). Paul’s only reference to Jesus’ origins comes in his observation in the mid-50’s A.D. that he was “born of a woman, born under the law.” (Galatians 4:4) a common euphemism in Paul’s time referring to...

Living in orchid time

Back in my prom-going days (half a century ago) the choices for providing flowers for one’s date were most often limited to reasonably priced and readily available stock: roses, daises, chrysanthemums and carnations. More exotic blooms like orchids were reserved for weighty affairs like weddings, their price being prohibitive for all but the most special occasion. In stark contrast, orchids have become commonplace today. Phalaenopsis, Cymbidia, Dendrobia and the like are widely available for purchase in sizes tiny to elephantine in colors both natural and enhanced. They sit nestled among plumbing fixtures in home improvement stores, alongside more conventional houseplants like philodendron, spider plants and tradescantia in grocer’s aisles and even show up prior to holidays in gas station convenience stores. As they have become widely available, their affordability has increased as well. Only a few cents more than a sawbuck will buy you a cute little phal in a four inch pot with a couple of blossoms and a promising bud or two while $15 will buy a dendrobium of seriously imposing size sporting dozens of flowers. The orchid’s popularity is due not only to its exotic appearance, but also to the flower’s longevity. It’s not uncommon for the blossoms on an orchid to last for upwards of several months, while purchasing one heavy with buds can mean six months or more of welcome and continuous blooming. In comparison to other popular houseplants this is an absolute bonanza of beauty. An African violet, for instance, whose flowers last at most for three weeks, can’t hold a candle to an orchid for long lasting decorative appeal. Until the blooming ends. My wife and I often have a recently purchased orchid placed prominently on our mantel, providing welcome color and cheer to an otherwise simple living room. In part this means that we have become slaves to a collection of orchids that stopped blooming months or even years ago. We have an impressive collection of orchids in stasis throughout the house – two or three broad leaves curled back from a center surrounded by serpentine roots that writhe above and around the clay pots in which they rest. Like our other houseplants, they are faithfully watered and fed according to their required schedules and are repositioned seasonally to take advantage of available light. However, unlike my African violets which dutifully provide a crowning cluster of flowers every four weeks or so in gratitude for the attention they receive, my old orchids just sit around requiring care but giving back nothing. Turns out that there is nothing in the plant world that is as inert as a spent orchid.  I confess that there have been times when I was ready to give up on an old orchid, having watered and fed it for a year or more but seeing no change other than the growing layer of dust on its leaves. I resolve to throw off the shackles of botanical obligation and trash it despite profound feelings of guilt that I am discarding a living thing, only to discover on my way to the compost bin a little green nub of a stem emerging from the center of the plant. Shouting “Keep hope alive!” I return it to a sunny spot on a window sill, excited that my patience is finally paying off. The shoot grows about as quickly as a canyon erodes. Three months later the stub has gained perhaps an inch in length. Despite glacial progress I stick with it and before a year has passed, buds form on the end of the stem. Another season passes, the buds open and I congratulate myself on having brought this lovely leech back to glory. I place it suggestively amidst eight or nine dormant orchids in hopes of spurring some competitive spirit, but they sit surrounding my triumph of gardening patience, impassive and unmoved. And I’ve learned that there is springtime and quality time and downtime and orchid time. When you’re in it, orchid time feels like forever. It won’t be rushed and it often proceeds at an inconvenient pace. Five years ago my wife bought me a small but truly magnificent Brassia with dramatically striped blossoms in tiger colors that sported long pointed “whiskers.” She must have acquired it toward the end of it’s blooming period because the flowers withered within a month of purchase. For the next two years I coddled it, tended it patiently, longing to see it burst into bloom. Finally, a small spike emerged from the center of the plant and I became excited at the thought that I would see these astonishing flowers again. The spike took months to grow,...